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Death Postponed: Get him to Greece!

How Dr Aggrey Irons ended up in jail, faced death while travelling with a mentally ill sailor

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 29, 2012    

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This is the 22nd in a series on close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of the society. THOSE who are acquainted with consultant psychiatrist Dr Aggrey Irons hardly know when to take him seriously.

Indeed, his friends tease him that the main reason he was able to get on so well with patients at the mental institution, Bellevue Hospital, where he spent 22 years as senior medical officer, was because he 'spoke their language'.

The burly president of the Medical Association of Jamaica has enjoyed fair success in convincing younger folk that, despite his present size, he, among other things, kept goal while he attended St George's College.

That out of the way, the job of persuading some to accept his account of what happened to him in 1977, while he escorted a mentally challenged man back to Greece, was not made easier by the witty manner in which he told the tale to the Jamaica Observer.

The series of events that unfolded around this patient during the trip at times led Dr Irons to believe that his life on earth would have been cut short.

For one thing, the aircraft transporting them to Greece almost ran out of fuel in mid-air. To compound matters he was detained for over 16 hours by Greek soldiers who had taken over the country, following a military coup.

Dr Irons relived his first encounter with the Greek national who was the apex of it all.

"A patient on a Greek shipping liner a few miles off the coast of Jamaica went out of his mind because he had heard news that his cousin was going to marry someone else and he was in love with that cousin," Dr Irons said.

"In response to his distress, he decided that the voices that he was hearing were telling him to dismember himself, so he started doing so by cutting off one of his toes each day out at sea on the vessel.

"After he had finished cutting off the second toe, others on the ship discovered what he was doing, called the Jamaican Coast Guard, as they were near enough to Jamaica, who took him up to the Department of Psychiatry at the University of the West Indies, where I happened to be on duty at the time," the senior doctor said.

The job of getting the patient back to sanity was hampered by the communication barrier between the two, as the man spoke no English and Dr Irons, no Greek. Luckily, a solution was soon found — the University's professor of botany at the time spoke both languages and acted as interpreter.

After a week of emergency treatment and having bonded with the psychiatrist, the sailor had to be returned to Greece, but he insisted that he would not go home unless Dr Irons travelled with him, and declared that the doctor had saved his life and that he regarded him as his friend. So off they went on the long journey together.

"We had to take Air Jamaica to London and then the plan was to get on a flight from Heathrow airport over to Athens and deposit him in Greece," said Dr Irons.

"Prime Minister Michael Manley was on the plane going to London and the authorities were alerted, the shipping line ready, only to hear upon reaching Heathrow that there was a military coup in Greece. The government had been toppled, people were killed, the army was running the country, and all flights had stopped."

With no luggage and an unpredictable passenger in tow, Dr Irons was forced to spend the night at a hotel outside Heathrow. The Greek, thirsty for booze, got up in the middle of the night and went downstairs to the bar to fill up on his favourite drinks, bandaged foot and all, but was somehow fit enough to travel on to Greece the next day.

But that's when the adventure began to unravel, leaving Dr Irons slowly counting the time that he likely had left to live.

"We got on a flight the next day at great manipulation, only to end up over Athens with the pilot telling us, 'we are above Athens. If you look around you will see many other aircraft. The army is in control of the airports and they do not seem to know how to handle the air traffic control. They have ordered us to circle. We've been circling for the past hour but we are running low on fuel. The bar is open'."

"That's the time I knew that I was in trouble, especially when the big men at the back of the plane start to bawl. I had to — in my very best English — calm them down and tell them 'if we are going to die, let us die like men, and die as men,' quoting some line I think I heard some time in the past.

They all did end up drinking the in-flight bar out of stock as they prepared to drop from the sky when the fuel ran out, Dr Irons said. But it was not his time as the plane was finally allowed to land safely.

"We did empty the bar and we did land eventually and the pilot was thanked, though we landed at the wrong airport and there was no luggage there for us, nothing at all," he added.

It was then that reality struck that the army had taken control of the entire country and it was serious business on the ground.

"When we got to immigration, which was being done by the army, they looked at this big black man, that's me, walking with this white sailor. One of them looked at my passport and said 'Jamaica? What are you doing in Greece?'

"So I told them that I was a psychiatrist and what I was doing and one responded, 'likely story, take him to the detention area.'

Dr Irons knew that things could get really tricky, as he was abroad alone and dealing with antsy soldiers in a military coup. He remembered thinking it was like in the movies.

"Six soldiers with machine guns took me to a jail that was set up at the airport and they threw me and the sailor man in that jail. That time I remembered all kinds of stories about people jailed overseas who you never hear from again, but I kept cool, and after several hours I had an idea.

"I started to make a lot of noise and asked for the commanding officer, because there was going to be an international incident, as I came down to London with my prime minister, and my prime minister is in London, and if he ever hears that this is happening to me here, there is going to be a problem," Dr Irons recounted.

Soon after, his situation improved. He was able to speak with one of the army officials, whom he convinced to verify his claim by calling the head of the shipping line, who confirmed that the company was expecting both men.

"Maybe they felt intimidated because I am a well-built black man and I had this man with me who was like my slave, because anything I tell him, he would do. He protected me," quipped Dr Irons.

"So they apologised to me and when I finally got out, they sent the biggest limousine that they could find, so now they know that I am an important person," he remarked.

But the problems did not stop there, as the Greek sailor had become so fond of the impressive Jamaican doctor that he refused to let him go back to his country in peace.

"We took him to the hospital, but when we reached there, the man said he is not leaving me, wherever I am going he is going; he is not staying in any hospital without me, so I will have to stay at the hospital with him.

"Instead of getting on a plane and going about my business, I had to spend a night at the psychiatric hospital in Athens, just to make sure that the man was alright. But they treated me like a king.

"Twenty years after that I went back to the same airport when I went to Athens for the 1997 World Championships and visited the little prison that I was in, and people didn't believe me when I was telling them that I was in this place and locked up under military supervision," he said.

There were other anxious moments for the man who has served as team doctor for Jamaica Olympic and World Championship teams, but none stands out like the experience in Greece.

Having to deal with people who are mentally unstable exposes him to danger at times, and Dr Irons remembers two other serious incidents which caused him to open his eyes to what could have been.

About 15 years ago a woman who was not his patient burst through the door of his Health Care Limited offices along Arthur Wint Drive with a sharp knife and tried to stab him.

"She was proclaiming, as she proceeded to attack me, that she wanted to see what the colour of my blood was, to see if she and I had the same blood. That was her reason for wanting to stab me. I disarmed her and had to ban her from coming here in the future," he said.

"There was also this mass murderer who was deported back to Jamaica from the USA and who was brought to Bellevue from the airport directly, but there was no reason to keep him in the hospital.

"When he was recounting his story in the admission room, about how he held onto a man and ripped out his entrails, he was using me as a sort of demonstration piece. Psychologically, it was extremely scary. He never attempted to attack me physically, but psychologically, I did experience real fear, although I didn't show it, like I did in the case of the lady with the knife," he said.

As a student of St George's College, Dr Irons, like many of his schoolmates and those of the nearby Kingston College, often fell victim to boys who lined themselves along North Street and who would steal their watches and money. However, Dr Irons boasted of "boxing them off" and leaving them behind because he could run really fast back then.

He was also held up by two gunmen outside his then Mannings Hill Road offices during the 1970s after the Greece experience, but talked the men out of physically harming him and gave them a "change" for their 'troubles'.

His attempts to bluff his way to safety also worked on two muggers in Washington DC, where a few choice Jamaican-style curse words helped make him less of an target.

"I was at a psychiatric convention in downtown Washington DC in the 1980s, and in front of the train station is this big open park, and I was walking from the convention centre through the park, up to the train station, going north ... me alone in the park.

"I had my convention bag with me, so obviously I may have been seen as a tourist. Suddenly, two Hispanic-looking guys jumped out of the bushes, one with a big, long knife and seh I must give them everything I have, my suit and everything.

"I just threw down my bag, tek off mi jacket and laced into some serious Jamaican bad words and said to them, 'you know where I come from... where I come from me nyam people like you fi dinner you know', and the two bwoy dem run weh. The bluff worked. I didn't see them with a gun so I felt competent," he said.

Dr Irons is now fully involved in private practice, surviving through the strength of his loyal staff members at Health Care, Alwen Williams and Joan Rattray Leiba, who have both spent over 30 years working with him.

His interest in football these days is limited to watching the game when he can, and, although he is tempted at times to dress up for the odd match, his cool head often advises him to do otherwise.

After all, he doesn't want to spoil the enviable record that he has left behind.

"I was in the George's Manning Cup squad, played second XI for George's and kept goal for St George's Old Boys while I was a medical student, and also in Master's League.

"I remember playing Roper Cup (between St George's and KC) at Clovelly Park in 2000 and had to keep goal for both the Under-35 team and the Over-35 team, because the Under

35-keeper never turned up. Not one goal was scored in any of the two games, and that's why I retired — I had to do it while I was on top," he said.

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